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Bryan Charnley’s depictions of schizophrenia 3 of 3

10 October 2014

Yesterday we began to look at the use of symbolism in Charnley’s art, and we continue this now in considering his final work, the Self Portrait series.

Despite feeling positive about his artistic direction, Charnley always struggled to find commercial success with his paintings. By 1991 he was mentally and physically exhausted – both by his illness and by the daily struggle to survive financially.

Charnley’s brother James writes that:

‘For ten years Bryan had tried to show what he could do in spite of his illness. He had received no encouragement. All that he could do now was to show what he could do with his illness, to unleash it and to follow it through to the end.’

The Self-Portrait series, Charnley’s final project, was conceived as an artistic experiment to confront schizophrenia head on. Charnley began reducing his medication, day by day, each day painting a self-portrait and painstakingly recording the effects (the full series, and the accompanying notes can be viewed on Bryan Charnley’s website).

Though he begins with meticulously observed photo-realism, as the series continues Charnley increasingly turns to what he called ‘graffiti effects’ to symbolise his sense of ‘a disintegrating ego’.

In July 1991, Bryan Charnley took his own life. The final self-portrait – a series of expressionist strokes of red paint – was still on his easel.

Schizophrenia Awareness Week 2014

This week, on the occasion of Schizophrenia Awareness Week, the mental health charity Rethink is highlighting the fact that people suffering from schizophrenia die, on average, twenty years before their time.

They are encouraging people to get involved with raising money and awareness of the illness, to fight this statistic.

For Charnley, serious recognition came too late; however, the year after he died, his final Self-Portrait Series was exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery, London.

We hope the 2015 Charnley exhibition at Bethlem Museum of the Mind will, similarly, introduce his work to a wider audience.

For further information, support and advice on schizophrenia and Schizophrenia Awareness Week, see rethink.org.

Suicide is preventable; help is available at samaritans.org.

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